Jaylen Clark understands the deal. He knew the question was coming.
So when Chris Holtmann asked the uncommitted 2020 four-star wing from Corona, California, whether it would be realistic for the born-and-bred West Coast resident to eventually play for Ohio State, Clark had a simple answer: “Yeah.”
Holtmann responded: “Why’s that?”
Clark, who was preparing for his junior year of school to begin, was ready, and he knew the head coach might get thrown off with his answer.
“I was like, 'Because my mom went to Ohio State,’” Clark told Eleven Warriors. “He kind of chuckled. And I was like, 'No, I'm serious. My mom went to Ohio State.'”
Holtmann needed confirmation. Coaches dream of connections like the one Clark had just revealed, and he wanted to make sure he heard correctly. So Holtmann got Clark’s mother, Denita Brooks, on the phone.
Brooks set him straight.
She spent six years at Ohio State, eventually earning her master’s degree before moving out to California where she met her now-husband and began a family. Clark’s grandmother lives in Cleveland, and he has an aunt and uncle who still reside in Columbus. At least once a year, usually around Thanksgiving, Clark and his family travel to Columbus.
Shortly thereafter, Clark said, the Buckeyes began recruiting him harder.
“Other schools that have called me before and they ask whether I'd go there, I say, 'Yeah,' because obviously you want to look into a school, but you just say yeah to say yeah,” Clark said. “With that one, it was like, yeah, I know everything about it. I know the streets. I know everything about it. I know how to get around to everything.”
Clark, the No. 57 prospect in the country, has power schools chasing him. He holds scholarship offers from Ohio State, UCLA, California, TCU, UNLV, USC and others, along with a hefty list of other schools interested in him that will likely grow this spring and summer as he plays on the Adidas Gauntlet circuit with the Compton Magic.
At 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, Clark is the 13th-ranked shooting guard in his class and the No. 10 player in California, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
Clark has visited Columbus on numerous occasions to see his family, but he hasn’t visited Ohio State’s campus as a recruit. He said he plans to take a visit “shortly” and aims to make the trip before summer begins. Buckeyes coaches visited him twice this year at Centennial High School.
In late November, Clark had hoped to take a visit that conspicuously coincided with the Buckeyes’ football game against the Wolverines, but he and his diehard fan of a mother couldn’t make the trip.
“I was actually hot because they left me tickets to the Ohio State-Michigan game, and you already know how that gets,” Clark said. “My mom was (angry) because I had a game that day. It was like the beginning of the season. It was a preseason game for us, so my coach said I couldn't miss, I had to play. I'm never seen her upset like that over a game.”
She still hasn’t forgotten the missed opportunity to see her favorite team play.
When Clark was a child, Brooks often dressed him in Buckeye-themed clothes. His mom ensured he had as much scarlet and gray regalia as possible.
“I have a whole bunch of Ohio State stuff. I've grown out of a lot of it, but I have a lot,” said Clark, who paused for a second. “Like, a lot a lot.”
Clark’s mother’s fandom runs deep, and he got a recent reminder when the Buckeyes played in the NCAA tournament.
“When they're playing, it's loud in the house,” Clark said. “Her mom, my grandma, she lives in Cleveland. So she was just out here for the tournament. All games go off when Ohio State's playing. Nobody can talk. If they lose, then nobody can say nothing. They're serious about it.”
Clark doesn’t have a specific timeline for his recruitment. He plans to take visits this spring and summer if for no other reason that to explore the country. Then, by the end of the AAU season, he plans to cut his list of schools down.
The Buckeyes remain in the mix of schools trying to woo Clark.
“It's just like when you watch something for so long, you're like, 'Man, I want to be in that.’” Clark said.
His extended history following the program from afar gives him a rare institutional knowledge for a high schooler from California.
“I've been watching it for so long,” Clark said. “I feel like I'm really a fan because my favorite player is not someone everybody knows.”
Well, not everybody on the West Coast, at least.
Clark fancies Aaron Craft as his favorite Ohio State player. Not D’Angelo Russell or Greg Oden, two of the highest-profile Buckeyes to reach the NBA in his lifetime, but Craft, the defense-first point guard with a reputation for getting under the skin of opponents in the Big Ten.
“He was like a little dude that didn't really look like he fit in until you watched him play,” Clark said. “If you just looked at him, he didn't pass an eye test.”
Clark doesn’t have that problem.
His athletic 6-foot-6 frame passes the eye test with ease, and he aims for a similar ferocity to Craft on defense.
“On the defensive end, that's my favorite,” Clark said. “I don't know, I just like seeing good players not being able to do anything against me. Like, you get them rattled. My jump shot's developing. That's the only thing I feel like I'm really lacking. But I can dribble, pass and finish around the rim well. And I play great defense 94 feet.”
He remembers matching up with Ethan Anderson, a three-star point guard from Los Angeles who will head to USC to continue his basketball career in a couple months. Entering the day, Anderson averaged 26 points per game or some other “crazy number.” Clark held him to eight points.
In December, Centennial headed on the road to take on Sherman’s Oaks’ Notre Dame High School, led by much-hyped five-star small forward Ziaire Williams. Clark wanted to guard Williams, but due to how the rosters aligned, his coach had him locked up with someone else. Williams proceeded to score nearly 30 points in the first three quarters, giving Notre Dame the lead entering the final quarter.
“My coach finally switches me on him, and he didn't score the rest of the game," Clark said. "That's how we ended up beating them. We were down seven going into the fourth. Comeback win.”
Clark has the combination of athleticism and defensive intensity Holtmann often desires, making him a prospect that has caught Ohio State's attention.
And his unexpected connection to both the city and university only makes the potential pairing more intriguing.